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New Jersey Restaurant Association

Educating Association Members Brings Sustainable Changes for a State

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Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, keeps on top of sustainability since restaurants can make such a huge difference
By Amanda Baltazar June 2011 Philanthropy

The New Jersey Restaurant Association (NJRA) is at the forefront of sustainability. It works closely with its members to educate them and help them find solutions.

President Deborah Dowdell has overseen the creation of a Green Task Force and various other initiatives, which she hopes will make New Jersey one of the pioneering states in terms of restaurant sustainability.

RMGT spoke with Dowdell.

Why are you so passionate about sustainability and what inspires you?

I’ve come to realize that in order for the industry I represent to thrive, embracing sustainability is a non-negotiable.

Our board of directors couched their commitment in terms of economic, social and environmental priorities because the sheer magnitude and influence of the restaurant and hospitality industry really means we have no choice.

But our visionary members chose to be sustainable; they weren’t forced to, and this inspires me. And when the association didn’t work fast enough, they pushed us. If we couldn’t take the lead, they led by example and in the spirit of association they kept us in the loop.

You have a Green Task Force. What is its mission?

Our chairman, George Ebinger, appointed the Green Task Force in late 2010. He wanted to harness that passion and interest being expressed by certain members who were researching, testing, investing and eager to share their knowledge.

The mission of the task force is to gather together interested, experienced restaurant operators to investigate and test green initiatives, vet them in a uniform, unbiased manner, and inform our members of the information they have gathered through their work.

What does the Green Task Force do?

We realize that we’re in a position often to invest the time and resources collectively that our members can’t on their own. So we offer them options for consideration that helps keep them on the cutting edge of relevant technologies and solutions that will make them better operators.

The Green Task Force is creating momentum. We have re-engaged a family restaurant that’s nationally known as an innovator in the green area. So we did a field trip and went into the basement and on the roof, and behind equipment in the kitchen. We got our fingers dirty to see what they’re doing. They’re light years ahead of many people—they’ve converted some equipment and do a tremendous amount of innovative experimentation.

We do things like this then report that back to our members and include it on our Facebook page.

What is the NJRA doing in beyond the Green Task Force?

We seek to be a credible resource of information that we can impart to our members. 

And the very nature of an association is to disseminate information so we make sure as many people are recipients of information as possible. We still send snail mail although email is greener—we’re passing on the word.

We also promote the National Restaurant Association’s conserve.org website.

We spearheaded a board resolution ten years ago to encourage members to buy locally grown and Jersey fresh products whenever possible, and it became part of our core belief as an organization.

And we recognize members who’ve done a lot of greening. When we give annual awards, that’s one of the points we consider. It’s one of the things we never thought about 10 years ago.

And finally, we make sure we keep the momentum moving in the direction of sustainability and our Green Task Force. Years ago, people didn’t want to install fax machines but we said give it a try. The role of an association is to nudge and push.

What do you think are the restaurant industry’s biggest challenges?

I think that the biggest challenges at this point is the uncertain climate so do you make investments in sustainability or not?

The red tape burden, the insurmountable paperwork to take advantages of sustainability is so huge, that the restaurateurs don’t do it. Taking hours that you don’t have and resources that you don’t have, and getting there is still an uncertainty.

How are you promoting sustainability at a political level?

We’re educating politicians about our industry and about business and how businesses work and educating them that mandates don’t work and/or incentives don’t work if you make it insurmountable.

For example, Governor Christie appointed a red tape review commission and asked for a comment on how New Jersey could become more business friendly. We participated and said that one of the things would be to eliminate the red tape hurdles. They are now trying to transition away from much of the red tape they put in place.

We educate politicians that our industry is large, it is vast and can have a very positive impact on sustainability initiatives. But we point out that they cannot impose on industry any stumbling blocks and hurdles, and nor can they mandate, when those mandates only make energy usage costly.